Management In Real Life: Performance Review Hooey

Posted on January 10, 2013
Posted By: Kevin Herring
It's that time again when organizations are abustle with performance grading, self reviews, rank ordering, goal setting, final performance evaluations, and merit pay raises all in the name of managing performance. The amount of activity and anxiety the performance review process produces could make last minute Christmas shopping look like a seasonal stress reliever. So what's all the fuss about?

They say that if managers don't do end-of-year performance reviews, people won't work hard enough at their jobs; it's a last ditch effort to hold people accountable. Really? Is that what we believe about our so-called greatest assets? Well, not everyone. And get this: some of those doubters are the same zealots who hound you to turn in your performance reviews.

While HR leaders clamor for you to do performance reviews in order to hold people accountable, they secretly report in national surveys that they really use them to justify pay increases. In fact, any reasons they give relating to managing performance end up at or near the bottom of the list. How ironic! Apparently, when it comes to performance reviews, some HR leaders are feeding managers a bunch of hooey. Fed up with it, companies like Lockheed, Adobe Systems, and NASA have pulled the plug on performance reviews. After calculating the time, expense, and lack of return on investment, leaders decided resources drained by doing them could be better used in more productive activities.

Of course, not everyone is ready to break with tradition. A hurdle for some is feeling they have to plug the hole that's left when the forms are gone and not knowing what to do instead. Historically, the old review process has been a way to check up on supervisors who weren't doing their jobs. Bad supervisors had to be told to track results, give feedback (particularly when things weren't going well), and prove they were complying by turning in a form for each employee at the end of the year. Letting them off the hook by telling them they no longer have to do reviews seems risky. If they stop doing reviews, how would supervisors be held accountable for holding everyone else accountable? Well, to shift to an appraisal-less workplace, we have to first stop thinking of performance management as a way to hold people accountable: then, change how we're managing.

It sounds strange, doesn't it? Isn't holding people accountable the boss's job? The problem is, holding people accountable simply reinforces employee compliance at the expense of commitment. It's this hold-them-accountable mentality that causes organizations to define performance management as an extra half a percent raise or one-point drop on a rating scale as if personal fulfillment at work can be reduced to a level of cheese and electric shocks in a lab experiment. But meaning and purpose -- commitment -- aren't produced from simplistic rewards and punishments and holding people accountable for compliance; they come from a sense of ownership for something bigger than oneself.

How do we help employees shift their energies away from complying with boss expectations to committing to business unit success? How do we support them taking on meaningful improvement initiatives as their own? Four leadership practices will help:

  1. Create team meetings where everyone comes together and determines what the team can do better to confront challenges and contribute to business unit goals. Facilitate rich, collaborative discussions that identify critical team outputs and actions team members need to take to succeed.

  2. Help both the team and individual team members develop commitments that combine to improve overall team performance and contribute to business unit goals. Establish defined goals and tracking mechanisms for commitments.

  3. Make commitments and metrics visible by posting them on walls and places frequented by team members.

  4. Provide regular feedback by holding frequent team meetings where team members solicit helpful information from each other about what they should change to help the team succeed.

You might look at these practices and say you're organization isn't ready for that. If so, start with educating employees about the business and their impact on it. Then involve them more in solving problems and deciding how to do the work. Eventually, you can use these alternatives to performance reviews and stop holding people accountable with implied threats and promises of insignificant rewards through performance ratings and merit pay increases. It will change your conversations about accountability, and instead of conversations about compliance, you will be having conversations about commitment. Best of all, you can stop wasting time doing all the activities associated with performance reviews and spend your time doing things that actually fuel higher performance.

Trying it on for fit:

As an individual contributor, you can take the initiative and start building a culture of ownership, collaboration, and enthusiasm for performance improvements by finding ways to educate yourself and fellow team members about the business. Start by asking questions to learn the business. Discuss with others how you might work better together to solve a problem or improve team performance. Post your commitments and performance results where they can be easily seen and talked about. Schedule a regular time to meet fellow team members and ask them what they want you to keep doing as well as what they would like you to change in order to fulfill your commitments and contribute to team goals.

Authored By:
Kevin Herring is co-author of Practical Guide for Internal Consultants, and President of Ascent Management Consulting. Ascent specializes in workgroup and business unit performance turnarounds through breakthrough leadership, workplace cultures and organization systems. Kevin can be contacted at 520-742-7300, or

Other Posts by: Kevin Herring

The Non-leader in Each of Us - November 19, 2013

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January, 14 2013

Jerry Watson says

Love that article, but do not see any wholesale change happening anytime soon, but just talk of it makes me think there could be some light to eventually emerge at the end of the tunnel. It is a powerful concept, but in the US we are still in love with the late Peter Drucker’s MBO philosophy, even though it is so ingrained that few even recognize it as such. I guess, I may be stuck in time myself since I am still a big fan of some of the late Paul Hersey’s and Ken Blanchard’s older Situational Leadership and employee maturity theories. But is good to see challanges to the status quo.

January, 18 2013

Len Gould says

Totally agreed with Jerry's post. In general, my experience has been that "employee performance reviews" are entierely BS. Fill out a form, find any improvement which you can possibly take credit for, yadda yadda. Experience is that the contractor's mandate is to make sure that, above all, no employee ever gets in trouble. The world is divided into two groups, 1) employees, who must NEVER get into trouble, and 2) contractors, who spend their entiire time and resources making sure employees never get in trouble.,

Of course, many in managment will be shocked by such, but so.

January, 19 2013

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Right on. That is exactly my experience too - from both sides of the fence. I already know who the good employees are before even looking at the performance appraisal and, as an employee receiving them for many years, I can attest to the fact that they did not change my performance one iota. Really makes me wonder why Corporations do it. You provide some good reasons here but I sure would not expend the time and effort on them. A complete waste of time money and resources that could be better spent on equipment to make employees more productive and easier. Much bigger bang for the buck.

And Jerry - how right you are. I don't see any change coming soon either. It has become so embedded in Corporate culture that even saying the words "scrap it" would send shivers down every CEO' spine. But scrap it is exactly what they need to do.


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